Celebrating a History of Remarkable Scholars

There is no definitive black student life at Harvard in 1998.

According to Black Student Association Vice President Dionne A. Fraser '99, "With integration and mixing of cultures that have become the norm there is no one black experience."

Increased cultural diversity and awareness on the contemporary campus have lead to a broader student experience says Fraser.

"Forty years ago, being black just meant being an outsider to the rest of the student body and sticking together out of necessity," says Fraser, "Today we are not as terrorized as before and blacks have a lot of different agendas."

According to the Crimson Key Guide, next year's graduating class will be eight percent African American, an impressive figure when viewed in historical context.


In the almost 130 years since the first black student, Richard T. Greener 1870, graduated from Harvard College, being black at Harvard has often required the challenging and difficult balancing of identities.

Although in the late nineteenth century black students were few in numbers, those that did attend the College went on to become intellectual and historical figures. W.E.B. Dubois 1890, a philosophy student, formed close relationships with his professors, Harvard luminaries such as William James and George Santayana.

Despite his reverence for academic life at Harvard, an institution he once called a "great institution of learning," Du Bois, who was one of five student commencement speakers, was happy at Harvard only because he accepted the extreme racial segregation.

"The shadow of insult fell," said Du Bois in his essay, "A Negro Student At Harvard At The End of The Nineteenth Century," of being mistaken for a servant. Turned away from local barbershops, refused lodging by families who habitually hosted white students and excluded from various activities such as the Glee Club, Du Bois focussed on academic achievement while coping with the many facets of on campus racism.

Other pioneering black students in the contemporary era experienced similarly racist attitudes at the College, along with a sharp sense of isolation. In "Travels With Charlie: In Search of Afro-America" Herbert W. Nickens '69 recalled his painful adjustment freshman year.

"Being black exacerbated the already difficult... adjustment," Nickens said. "We often bore the burden of being cultural and anthropological curiosities...inspected, sometimes devaluated, frequently overvalued, but never regarded in absence of the black factor."

By the early twentieth century, more black students were attending the College than in DuBois's time, but according to alumni accounts, increased admissions didn't signal a change in attitudes. Although many students recalled being accepted by their peers-- joining the Debating Society and various student councils--African Americans faced growing racism on campus among the faculty and administration.

In 1921, President Lawrence A. Low- ell--who had just instituted compulsorydormitory living for first-years--barred blackstudents from the dorms. According to Lowell, themeasure was designed to placate Southern studentswho might have experienced "discomfort" by livingin such close quarters with black students.

"We have felt from the beginning the necessityof not including colored men...of not compellingmen of different races to reside together," saidLowell in a letter to an alumna at the time of thedecision.

The Harvard community--students, staff, alumni;even the Board of Overseers--were shocked.

"Deep is the... shame and humiliation ofHarvard's recent surrender to Bourbon South," saidDu Bois of the measure.

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